Old and Alone

85-year-old Dannie Lowe lives alone at Wah Luck House, Chinatown. Isolated by her age, health, and the area’s changing demographic, she managed to survive. 

Dannie Lowe carefully applied makeup in her eight-floor apartment in Chinatown. She was planning to have lunch with a friend at a deli on H street, not far from the Wah Luck House for senior citizens where she lives.

Using a walker, she slowly strolled outside, feeling the first cold of winter on her face. She said she was happy to have a rare chance to get out of her room.

“If you have friends, you’ll never be lonely,” Lowe, who immigrated from Beijing, China said, with clear English.

Lowe is one of a number of elderly Chinese immigrant women who lives alone at Wah Luck, a subsidized housing for low-income. Her husband died several years ago, and her son moved to New York.

“He lives his own way, I live my own way. You have to be independent,” she said, with a slice of bitterness.

But while Lowe keeps a positive attitude, her neighbors and friends worry about her. Fan Zhang, an administrative officer at Wah Luck, said she is concerned that Lowe spends too much time alone in her room, not socializing with neighbors and eating little.

“I want to take her lunch because I feel sorry for her,” Zhang said.

At Wah Luck, more than 50 percent of the residents are elderly and many of them live alone. But, unlike the others, Lowe doesn’t have home care. As low-income citizens, Lowe’s family can apply for personal home care by using Medicaid, a social health care program from the federal and state government.

Zhang said that she tried to contact social workers from the D.C. government office, asked them to visit Lowe. But, so far they haven’t.

According to a report from the Pew Research Center, seniors living alone are more likely to report feeling sad or lonely than elders who live with another person. In the end, those negative feelings can hurt their physical health.

At her last resort, Zhang eventually tried to contact Aging and Disability Resource Center, a department under DC Office of Aging which is responsible for providing services to elder people.

She finally got someone to respond. The office said that it would send staff members to visit Lowe. She hoped that they would come soon to help Lowe before it’s too late.

“When I went to her room, it was dark and was a complete mess,” Zhang said. “I am afraid that she would die in her room alone, and nobody knows.”

The Shrinking and Dangerous Chinatown

D.C.’s Chinatown has shrunk within these past decades as the younger generation of Chinese-Americans tends to avoid living in the capital city and choose to settle in the suburbs.  

For decades, Chinese-American immigrants have been leaving Chinatown. The area has gone from a high of about 3,000 to around 300 who remain today. This has made Chinatown, which once occupied by German and Jewish immigrants back in 19th century, keep dwindling.

Most of the younger generation and new immigrants have moved to the suburbs, mainly in Montgomery County, Maryland, where there are around 11,000 Chinese-Americans reside, and Fairfax County, Virginia. According to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 60 percent of the younger Chinese and new immigrants have chosen to settle outside the Beltway.

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Huang Feng, 85, in her apartment at a subsidized housing, Wah Luck House, in Chinatown, Washington, D.C. She is part of the remaining Chinese population who still live in Chinatown. Photo by Mellie Cynthia.

The changing Chinatown has made life more difficult for elderly Chinese-Americans who still live there. Their friends and family tend to live farther away, while their neighborhood is now overwhelmed with a busy shopping area, anchored by American’s retail outlets and the Verizon Center, where the Washington Wizards basketball team plays.

“Chinatown is no longer what it used to be,” said Ivan Lanier from the American Association of Retired Persons AARP, the Washington-based non-profit organization that one of its focuses is combating isolation among older citizens. “It has turned into what someone told me ‘Chinablock,'” he said.

Lanier also added that isolation and safety are the main issues lingering in the area. “Many elders are afraid to walk around their houses, even to go to the Verizon Center, because there are lots of young kids and that they might be victims of crime.”

For older Chinese, to always be cautious in Chinatown is important as the area has one of the highest crime rates in the capital city. The D.C.’s police data shows that in 2014, there were around 850 incidents of crime happened in Chinatown. The number has not significantly declined this year, leaving Chinese immigrants vulnerable to become victims due to their lack of English proficiency.

Due to the perilous risk of elderly people living alone and feel isolated, Lanier said, AARP tries to reach the community by promoting social and networking activities for the elders.

“We want them to thrive in the community. Not just to live,” he said.

A Spirited Life

The community tries to reach out elders in Wah Luck by holding social activities. The goal is to release the loneliness and the boredom of the elders.     

Since a long time ago, Chinese Community Church, which is located just one block from Wah Luck, has done efforts to make elders come out from their shells. Every Wednesday, the church holds an event where around 30 SENIORS elder participants can learn about Christianity, sing Christian songs, and play games.

“From the church point of view, it’s a way of spreading Christianity. But, actually, it’s not so much a religious meeting,” Young H. Woo, 77, a volunteer from the church said.

“It is to give the elders activities and interaction with the neighborhood. If they live alone and don’t have much activity, they can come down here.”

Sometimes, Woo, who is a retired pharmacist, also helps to translate letters for the seniors who can’t speak English, like Huang Feng.

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Once a week, a volunteer from the Chinese Community Church in D.C’s Chinatown, Young H. Woo, 77, helps to translate letters for the seniors who can’t speak English at Wah Luck House. Photo by Mellie Cynthia.

Every Wednesday afternoon, Feng, 85, comes down from her room to attend the Bible study on the first floor. She has been living at Wah Luck House for twelve years, alone. She said that she came to the U.S. with her husband more than three decades ago. But, her husband, who had passed away, went back to China several years later because he couldn’t speak English and couldn’t fit in living in D.C.’s Chinatown.

Feng said that her four children, all married, live in suburban Maryland. Her family usually visits her once in a month to take her out to dinner. Feng admitted prefers to live alone at Wah Luck, even after she had an accident, hit by a car when walked through the street that injured one of her knees.

“I enjoy living here. I have many friends who speak the same language as me, and I can play Mahjong with them, too,” said Feng, in Chinese. Besides that, she has realized that “Young people don’t like the old devil,” she said, laughing.

All of Feng’s children used to live in D.C.’s Chinatown, but as they got more money, they moved to Maryland. When her children told that they wanted to move out of Chinatown, leaving her alone in D.C., Feng said she couldn’t do anything.

“Even if I don’t like them to leave, there’s nothing that I can do. It’s their decision,” said Feng, who has a personal maid provided by the D.C. government to help her manage her life.

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Huang Feng is cooking at her kitchen. When her children told that they wanted to move out of Chinatown, leaving her alone in D.C., Feng said she couldn’t do anything. “Even if I don’t like them to leave, there’s nothing that I can do. It’s their decision,” said Feng, who has a personal maid provided by the D.C. government to help her manage her life.  Photo by Mellie Cynthia

The government has done actions to reach out the Chinese community in Chinatown.

Chief of DC Office of Aging, Garret King, in a phone interview said that the government has an outreach team that goes to Wah Luck House to make sure the seniors come out and have every opportunity to participate in our social and recreational events. The events can be Tai Chi class once a week, Chinese community picnic, or a bus trip to Chinese supermarket by bus once a month.

The seniors at Wah Luck can also obtain nurse or personal maid, benefits check up, and free prescription program for those who are qualified, which according to the law, whose income is less than $2,199 per month. The program is included in social health care for families and individual with low income, Medicaid.

“We work with the families to know what the qualified elder wants, either it is to hire a maid that can speak Chinese, or cook Chinese food,” said Mary Devasia, Project Manager of DC Department of Health Care Finance.

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Feng shows pictures of her family. Although all of her children live in Maryland, she prefers to live alone at Wah Luck. “I enjoy living here. I have many friends who speak the same language as me, and I can play Mahjong with them, too.” Photo by Mellie Cynthia.

For some elders, living alone might be a personal choice. Besides of the cheap rent, Dory Peters from Mayor’s Office of Asian and Pacific Islanders Affairs said that they prefer to stay in Chinatown because of its Metro accessible and the same language they speak.

“Many Chinese at the Wah Luck actually prefer to be there because they are comfortable with where they are,” she said.

However, the cultural changing between the young and old generation of Chinese immigrants has led many seniors to live alone.

Like Feng, another resident in Wah Luck, Lang Kha, 67, doesn’t want to live with her stepchildren in Maryland. “Living with the younger generation is different from the older. They have their own lifestyle,” Kha said.

“I would live here at Wah Luck, until the end of my life,” she added.

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